Charles Urban's Kineto company initially specialised in "what we venture to
assert are the more permanent uses of the Kinematograph, namely its application
to purposes of instruction, and the widening of general knowledge".
Kineto's 'interest' films came as close as any of their era to what was later
coined 'documentary' - a specific genre, distinct from other forms of
non-fiction. Indeed, A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner has entered textbooks as
a milestone in documentary's evolution.
Filmmakers had already begun to document industrial processes in detail, but
few had so vividly shown how these are entwined with human lives lived.
Intertitles play their part in this, anticipating the various tones adopted by
the 'voice of God' narrations of later sound documentaries: mostly explanatory
("Locking the Lamps"); sometimes playful ("Belles of the (Black) Diamond
Field"); sometimes symbolic ("Light After Darkness").
That the film is book-ended by staged sequences arguably strengthens rather
than weakens its claim to be a documentary, 'creatively treating' rather than
simply recording actuality. The scenes of the eponymous miner leaving and
returning to his family transform the viewer's interpretation of the colliery
footage in between (some of it also staged, underground cinematography not yet
being technically feasible). Even more obviously fictionalised is the final
scene, depicting a much wealthier family enjoying an evening by their coal fire.
This, too, anticipates a standard documentary device, the contrasting case
study. Here, it crudely but effectively locates the preceding action inside a
class structure literally fuelled by the mineworkers' toil. Given the film's
sanctioning by the Wigan Coal and Iron Co., ascribing subversive political
intentions to it would probably be an interpretation too far, but it might have
gently shaken some middle-class viewers from their complacency.
True, Kineto's innovations can be overstated: by later standards, the editing
of shots within sequences is particularly sloppy. Yet this film is moving as
well as informative. Placed halfway through it is a shot of a haggard female
worker (doubtless much younger than she looks) and a very young male one, both
staring out at the viewer - abjectly, it seems. In strictly narrative terms this
shot is completely extraneous, but it adds an entire layer of meaning. The
inclusion of footage unnecessary to the 'plot' but crucial to its impact on the
viewer is another unconscious anticipation of the future stylistic repertoire of
*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers'.